Tips and tricks from literary manager Jake Wagner
Imagine you’re marooned by the side of the highway, desperately trying to flag down someone, anyone, for help. Luckily, you have some poster board and a sharpie in your trunk. What are you going to write?
“Greetings! It seems misfortune has befallen me on this cloudy Thursday afternoon. My trusty vehicle, a 1992 Honda Civic, seems to be having some sort of engine trouble, despite only having 61,000 or so miles in its history. Perhaps it is the transmission? But, I digress. If you could please pull over that I may…”
Sometimes, short and sweet is the best way to go.
Hollywood is a busy town full of busy people. Assistants, agents, managers, producers, studio executives, and the other various forces in the industry tend to have many different plates spinning at all times. There are always multiple projects in development, in production, and being released.
Cars speeding down the highway.
The entertainment world is always looking for the next great screenwriter. The next big sale. But, when everyone is moving full-speed at all times, how do you position yourself to be seen? How do you flag them down?
On a recent interview for Launch Pad Insider Series, literary manager and owner of Alibi Entertainment Jake Wagner offered some advice on how to quickly and succinctly grab someone’s attention.
1. Craft A Winning Logline
“It’s not a movie if you can’t pitch it in two sentences or less.”
According to Wagner, that’s the very definition of high concept. Distill your story into two attention-grabbing sentences that someone can read and immediately understand.
Not every movie can easily be boiled down into such a small bite, but Wagner says the logline for a spec script needs to be able to pique the reader’s curiosity. He cites Panic Room as a classic example of a high concept spec that drew a lot of attention.
“The concept and the logline are in the title.”
You don’t have long to get someone’s attention, so a logline should be concise, clear, and exciting.
“It’s the same way I sell something. I gotta get people’s attention quickly, I gotta keep their attention, and then the script has to deliver.”
2. Enter A Screenwriting Competition
Screenwriting competitions offer a proven way to get noticed by the industry. But before you enter, make sure your script is in fighting shape so it can compete!
“I find a lot of new writers through contests. If you place in the Top 10 or you’re a finalist, myself and many other reps (agents, managers) get emails from those contests.”
Wagner says when he receives a contest’s finalists, he like to go through and pick screenplays he wants to read.
Wagner also said he’s found writers as a competition judge. Many screenwriting competitions are judged by industry professionals, and entering your script is a great way to get it read by people who can make a difference in your career.
And, if you do place highly and your script starts making the rounds, how do you increase the odds it gets a look? Once again, it comes down to that high concept pitch.
“I’m always checking out the loglines of the top 10 of lots of contests.”
4. Query Letters
If contests aren’t your thing and you want to reach out to potential reps or producers yourself, many writers turn to the query letter.
“Occasionally I get a really great query. But, maybe only one a year… that I actually request to read and it’s good.”
So, how do you make your query letter stand out? How can you position yourself to be one of the few queries where your script is requested?
“Short and sweet. Get right to it.”
Rather than crafting a form letter that lists all your accomplishments, history, or contest wins, let your work speak for itself in the form of, you guessed it, a tight and exciting logline.
It’s also important to tailor the email to your specific recipient, rather than blasting out a form email. Do your homework on reps and producers whose work fits with your project, and then, personalize your message.
“Say something nice. Like, ‘hey, just saw Stuber. Loved it…’ That’ll get my attention. And then: ‘Here’s what I got.’ Title. Genre. Logline, no more than two sentences… Get in, get out.”
5. Make a Short Film
This one’s for you writer/directors out there. Or, for you writers with director buddies. Proof of concept short films are an increasingly popular way for writers and filmmakers to get noticed.
“I’ve really been having a good time with the short films… It’s a proof of ‘here’s what we’re going for. Here’s the style. Here’s the tone. It’s a little sneak peek of what you’re going to be getting.’”
Wagner cited Andy Muschietti (Mama), Fede Alvarez (Panic Attack!), James Wan (Saw), and David F. Sandberg (Lights Out) who all broke into the industry with viral shorts.
“It’s a great way to get a new director in the game… It’s a directing sample. There’s a real track record lately of short horror film directors selling their horror short and quickly moving into A-List-director-type-stardom.”
Successful films in genres outside of horror have started as proof of concept shorts. Whiplash and Short Term 12 are recent examples. But, horror tends to make the most immediate impact with busy industry insiders.
“It’s something buyers and execs can watch… They get a good scare, then they show it to their boss like, ‘Check this out. You got four minutes?’”
“It’s been a real effective way to get new projects in the pipeline.”
Brian T. Arnold is a screenwriter repped by Verve Talent Agency (including by David Boxerbaum. Hi, David!) and Romark Entertainment. He won the Launch Pad Feature Screenplay Competition and was featured on the Hit List and the Young & Hungry List. Arnold also studied improv and sketch comedy at Upright Citizens Brigade and The Groundlings, wrote for a sketch team at iO West (R.I.P.), and wrote for the CBS Diversity Comedy Showcase.